Formed in 1992, the Lesbian Avengers is an informal network of grassroots organizations that use street theater and direct action to increase lesbian visibility, challenge oppression, and resist queer assimilation into the dominant culture. Although accurate tracking is difficult because chapters appear and disappear quickly, in 2000 there were about fifty-five Lesbian Avenger chapters in the United States and at least five operating in other countries. There is no national organization or structure, and each chapter is locally founded and operated, but chapters often collaborate on major national protests and events such as annual "dyke marches."
The Avengers was established in New York City in 1992 by six longtime lesbian activists who were concerned that the "gay movement" was failing to nurture the next generation of lesbian activists. They felt that academia was too theoretical; gay institutions were too conservative—lesbian visibility needed the same jolt that the AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power (ACT UP) had provided for AIDS activism.
Not long after the group was founded, it adopted as its logo a bomb with a lit fuse, an image that set the tone for the Avengers' activities. Several chapters drew new members with the boast, "We Don't Recruit, We Reload." Others used posters featuring gun-toting women in action. Critics saw these as calls to violence, but Lesbian Avengers describes them as theater, as symbolic ways of voicing outrage and confronting power.
The desire for such an aggressive strategy was stimulated in part by the 1991 murder of a lesbian and a gay man in Oregon. In that incident, neo-Nazi skinheads threw Molotov cocktails into the victims' home in an attack spurred on by a heated battle over an (ultimately defeated) ballot initiative that would have overturned statewide protections against discrimination based on sexual orientation and blocked passage of future protections.
That deadly event sparked the Lesbian Avenger trademark fire-eating, a staple stunt at carnivals that involves putting a lit torch into one's mouth and removing it with the flame still blazing. Saliva and lack of oxygen suppress the flame, which then reignites as it exits the flame-eaters' mouth. The Lesbian Avenger handbook describes its use of fire-eating as a symbolic act of reclaiming the element used against them: "The fire will not consume us—we take it and make it our own…. Lesbian Avengers eat fireto show that they can conquer their fears, and that they will not be intimidated. The bomb symbolizes the fact that we take the violence … consume it and turn this energy into positive non-violent action."
That attitude, coupled with its use of outrageous, often humorous street theater, has made the Lesbian Avengers a magnet to younger radical lesbians. Although membership is relatively small, the chapters have drawn a generally more diverse, multicultural group than most LGBT movement organizations can claim.
As a Moderate Response
The emergence of the Lesbian Avengers follows a cycle that social justice movements have traditionally experienced whereby a period dominated by assimilationist reformers is followed by the rise of liberationist radicals, who in turn are criticized by activists with more moderate politics. In this case, the more moderate homophile movement of the 1960s was followed by the more militant post-Stonewall Riots politics of the 1970s, which favored visibility over respectability. In turn, this gave way to more moderate politics that, for example, favored lobbying to street theater in the late 1970s. The late 1980s witnessed the revival of militancy as AIDS decimated queer communities in the context of governmental indifference. ACT UP was born out of that rage and an unwillingness to wait for slow reform while the death toll rose. By the early 1990s, however, more moderate politics were again ascendant, and the creation of Lesbian Avengers was part of an effort to challenge the new assimilationism.
Critics of radical liberationism dismiss the tactics of Lesbian Avengers and other direct action groups as irrational, unproductive, narcissistic, and more interested in mocking than in changing the system. Liberationists, in turn, dismiss reformers as collaborators who allow a narrow slice of the community access to the illusion of power while making life more difficult and more dangerous for the rest.
One of the most visible early actions of Lesbian Avengers, the Dyke March, coincided with the 1993 March on Washington. The event, which involved a separate march held before the general march, drew some twenty thousand women. The Dyke March was conceived as a protest march to increase lesbian visibility, spotlight issues unique to the lesbian community, and express outrage about being the targets of harassment, discrimination, and violence. In the following years, dyke marches were organized in various locations, mobilizing thousands in San Francisco, Chicago, New York and Los Angeles. Dyke marches have also been held in British Columbia and Toronto, and more than two hundred people participated in the "Dyke March, Tokyo" in 1997.
The tactics of Lesbian Avengers are as varied as the participants. Although members engage in traditional activities such as writing protest letters and cooking food at women's shelters, more original, outrageous tactics are the hallmarks of an Avenger zap. Examples include the following:
- In its first action in New York in 1992, Lesbian Avengers responded to a takeover of the education system by far right religious ideologues by going to a conservative religious school and handing out rainbow balloons emblazoned with the phrase "Ask about Lesbian Lives."
- In 1995, the San Francisco chapter of the Lesbian Avengers zapped Exodus International, a notorious anti-LGB religious organization that claims to "cure" homosexuality. Five Avengers stormed the Exodus headquarters in San Rafael, California, climbed onto the reception desk, shouted "We don't need to be cured," and released a thousand crickets.
- The Boston Avengers held a Lesbian Avenger "Eat Out" outside of a Jenny Craig weight loss branch to fight sizeism and fat-phobia in 1995.
- In 1997, the Lesbian Avengers protested a Promise Keepers rally in Washington, D.C.
- On Valentine's Day, the Avengers sent a message to the Family Research Council with the poem "Roses are Red/Violets are Violet/Don't knock sodomy/Least til you've tried it" and handed out leaflets at a Massachusetts elementary school that read "Girls who love girls, and women who love women are OK."
Sarah Schulman, a member of ACT UP and one of the Lesbian Avengers founders, says the group exceeded expectations: "The original motive for the Lesbian Avengers was to find some kind of training ground to teach younger lesbians organizing skills because male dominated groups were not allowing them to develop. It became a cultural phenomenon no one expected."
Lesbian Avengers Website. http://www.lesbian.org
Retter, Yolanda. "Dyke Marches: A Herstory." New Internation-list Magazine, 22 November 22, 2001.
Schulman, Sarah, and Urvashi Vaid. My American History: Lesbian and Gay Life During the Reagan/Bush Years. New York: Routledge, 1994.
see alsomarches on washington; pride marches and parades.